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Writer Martin Walser Reflects on the Difficulties of Living with German Guilt (October 11, 1998)

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Everyone knows the burden of our history, our everlasting disgrace. There is not a day in which it is not held up before us. Could it be that in doing so the intellectuals who hold it up before us fall prey for a moment to the illusion that, because they have labored once more in the grim service of memory, they have relieved their own guilt somewhat, that they are even for a moment closer to the victims than to the perpetrators? A momentary alleviation of the merciless confrontation of perpetrators and victims. I myself have never felt it possible to escape the side of the accused. Sometimes, when it seems I can’t look anywhere without being attacked by an accusation, I must talk myself into believing, and thereby gaining some relief from the burden, that a routine of accusation has arisen in the media. Easily twenty times I have averted my eyes from the worst filmed sequences of concentration camps. No serious person denies Auschwitz; no person who is still of sound mind quibbles about the horror of Auschwitz; but when this past is held up to me every day in the media, I notice that something in me rebels against this unceasing presentation of our disgrace. Instead of being grateful for this never-ending presentation of our disgrace, I begin to look away. [I would like to understand why the past is being brought up in this decade more than ever before.] When I notice something in me rebelling, I try to seek out the motives of those holding up our disgrace, and I am almost happy when I believe I can discover that often the motive is no longer keeping alive the memory, or the impermissibility of forgetting, but rather the exploiting of our disgrace for present purposes. Always good and honorable purposes – but still exploitation. Someone disapproves of the way in which we propose to overcome the results of Germany’s division, and says that in this way we are making a new Auschwitz possible. Even the division itself, as long as it lasted, was justified by leading intellectuals with a reference to Auschwitz. Another example: after exhaustive research, in one of my works I presented the story of a Jewish family and their journey from Landsberg an der Warthe to Berlin as an attempt, maintained over the course of fifty years, through baptism, marriage, and accomplishments to escape the lot of Eastern European Jews and become Germans, to assimilate completely. I said that anyone who sees everything as a road that could only end in Auschwitz makes the German-Jewish relationship into a catastrophe that was predestined under any and all circumstances. The intellectual who felt called on to comment called this a trivialization of Auschwitz. I will assume for my own sake that he could not possibly have studied the history of that family as thoroughly as I did. Even living members of that family have confirmed the accuracy of my depiction. But I’m still accused of trivializing Auschwitz. From there it’s only a small step to denying the Holocaust. A clever intellectual on TV assumes a serious expression that on his face looks like a foreign language, when he shares with the world the author’s serious failure, namely that Auschwitz does not appear in the book. Evidently he had never heard about the primal law of narration, that of narrative perspective. But even if he had, Zeitgeist comes before aesthetics.

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